Galileo vs. the Church (as reported by David Warren)

In a column entitled “The tyranny of science,” David Warren once again enlightens us with his astounding insights into the relationship between science and the church. Science, it turns out, is guilty of arbitrarily and dogmatically silencing its critics, while the Church is open and reasonable, and always careful to give objective, well-documented explanations for what is wrong with the ideas it condemns as heresy.

The Church to its credit, over 2,000 years, took the trouble to explain why a heresy was a heresy; why, moreover, it was wrong; and why any individual heretic was worth contradicting. Galileo, for instance, was given exhaustive hearings, and condemned — not to death, mind, but to recantation — not for his scientific assertions, but for his mischievous theological inferences.

Yes, that’s right folks. The reason Galileo was condemned as a heretic was simply because he was a heretic. He was making “mischievous theological inferences,” which the Church rightly forced him to recant, such as the inference that the earth revolves around the sun. So you see, science had nothing to do with it at all. Galileo was rightly condemned only after the Church exhaustively documented all the different ways in which he was heretical and wrong.

No doubt Warren’s amazing historical discovery will cause the Discovery Institute to conduct a serious review of its press releases, which have made frequent comparisons between ID’ers like Behe and Gonzalez on the one side, and the famous heretic Galileo on the other. (See for instance point #8 of this essay, as well as here, here, or heck, just search for “galileo”). Oddly, the Discovery Institute people seem to have been under the misapprehension that Galileo was right and that the Church was wrong to condemn him, since they consistently portray themselves as Galileo (the heretic) while putting mainstream science in the role of the dogmatic and repressive Church.

Even Warren himself seems to fall into the trap of comparing mainstream science with an arbitrarily dogmatic Church (and never mind that the Dover case was a civil suit brought in response to a direct violation of US law):

There was a show trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, two years ago, in which a local school board was prosecuted for having permitted the teaching of intelligent design. This was publicized by the liberal media as, “Another Scopes trial in America!” The defence called Michael Behe, so the plaintiffs brought Eric Rothschild, a high-powered attorney, to lure him into verbal traps. Rothschild made tendentious points on the definition of “science.” Behe wouldn’t play, and noted, rather dryly, that if the current official definition of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences were enforced, most major advances in modern science would have to be ruled illegal. Rothschild then paraphrased Behe’s position as, “So you believe astrology is valid science.” Needless to say, Behe demurred.

Warren didn’t have space to report the exact words of the discussion on astrology, so here it is, from the court transcripts, pages 38-39:

Behe: But in fact, the scientific community uses the word “theory” in many times as synonymous with the word “hypothesis,” other times it uses the word as a synonym for the definition reached by the National Academy, and at other times it uses it in other ways.

Rothschild: But the way you are using it is synonymous with the definition of hypothesis?

B: No, I would disagree. It can be used to cover hypotheses, but it can also include ideas that are in fact well substantiated and so on. So while it does include ideas that are synonymous or in fact are hypotheses, it also includes stronger senses of that term.

R: And using your definition, intelligent design is a scientific theory, correct?

B: Yes.

R: Under that same definition astrology is a scientific theory under your definition, correct?

B: Under my definition, a scientific theory is a proposed explanation which focuses or points to physical, observable data and logical inferences. There are many things throughout the history of science which we now think to be incorrect which nonetheless would fit that — which would fit that definition. Yes, astrology is in fact one, and so is the ether theory of the propagation of light, and many other — many other theories as well.

R: The ether theory of light has been discarded, correct?

B: That is correct.

R: But you are clear, under your definition, the definition that sweeps in intelligent design, astrology is also a scientific theory, correct?

B: Yes, that’s correct. And let me explain under my definition of the word “theory,” it is–a sense of the word”theory”does not include the theory being true, it means a proposition based on physical evidence to explain some facts by logical inferences. There have been many theories throughout the history of science which looked good at the time which further progress has shown to be incorrect. Nonetheless,we cant go back and say that because they were incorrect they were not theories. So many many things that we now realized to be incorrect, incorrect theories, are nonetheless theories.

R: Has there ever been a time when astrology has been accepted as a correct or valid scientific theory, Professor Behe?

B: Well, I am not a historian of science. And certainly nobody — well, not nobody, but certainly the educated community has not accepted astrology as a science for a long long time. But if you go back, you know, Middle Ages and before that, when people were struggling to describe the natural world, some people might indeed think that it is not a priori — a priori ruled out that what we — that motions in the earth could affect things on the earth, or motions in the sky could affect things on the earth.

And how did the Church of Science report this discussion, according to Warren?

This was then reported, in the liberal science press, with the triumphalist flavour of, “Behe forced to admit that astrology is valid science according to his definition.”

Just like Galileo, the heretic, was forced to admit believing the “mischievous theological inference” that the earth revolves around the sun, eh David?

Just for the record, let me point out what’s missing from Professor Behe’s definition of a scientific theory. A genuinely scientific theory does two things: (1) it attributes an observed effect to a proposed cause, and (2) it describes the precise connection between the proposed cause and the observed effect in sufficient detail that it is possible to determine what other consequences will also be produced, so that we can look for those consequences as a way of testing whether or not the theory (or hypothesis rather) is true. For example, the blueberry pie is missing a couple pieces. I hypothesize that Billy and Sarah ate the missing pieces. This implies other consequences, such as blueberry stains on their teeth and tongue, and when I look in their mouthes, the stains I expected are there. I conclude that the missing pie was eaten by Billy and Sarah, and not teleported away by aliens from the 17th dimension (as Billy claims), nor did any mysterious hungry stranger break into the house, eat the pie, and then leave after repairing all the damage caused by the break-in (Sarah’s story).

The reason it’s important to include both elements in the definition of a scientific hypothesis is that superstition also attributes an observed effect to a proposed cause. The difference between science and superstition is that science is able to describe the connection between the two in sufficient detail that you can look for the real-world consequences, and thus determine whether or not the evidence is consistent with the hypothesis. If the evidence does support the hypothesis (i.e., if we do find the consequences that would result from the hypothesis being true), then we can promote it to the status of a scientific theory.

Superstitions like astrology and Intelligent Design fall down on the second, scientific part. They cannot document any actual connection between the observed effect and the purported cause, and indeed cannot even describe what form such a connection would take. It’s all essentially just magic (or miraculous, if you prefer). And that’s why, when you redefine science to be broad enough to include ID, you end up including all sorts of other superstitions as well. Substitute “witchcraft” for “astrology” in Professor Behe’s argument above, and notice how easily it becomes “scientific” to attribute various misfortunes to demonic incantations, for example.

Meanwhile, David Warren continues blithely along, unaware that besides ignoring the facts, he’s actually contradicting his own side. I have a feeling we can look forward to a lot of truly entertaining and amazing (in the supermarket tabloid sense) essays in the weeks to come.

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